A powerful argument for green expertise
27 July 2011
The UK needs a coherent regulatory and legislative landscape for sustainable building and retrofitting to show that schemes like the Green Deal are not a fad but the new reality of property development and home ownership, says Professor Mark Gaterell
The cost of retrofitting UK homes – improving existing properties with modern technologies for better insulation and energy efficiency – is potentially vast. We have some of the oldest property stock in the world, the majority more than 50 years old, and built long before the age of carbon reduction targets.
Under the Green Deal, householders will qualify for loans of £6,500. But estimates from Forum for the Future, which has been advising on the Green Deal, suggest that for many older properties the costs will be closer to £65,000. And it's not only an issue for homes. The country's civil estate of more than 10 million square metres should be a model of energy efficiency and low emissions if the government is going to be able to persuade private owners to transform their own properties.
Reports suggest that sustainability targets for CO2 emissions and waste recycling in civil properties are being met, but it's important that the basic annual targets don't become the limit to ambition and vision for the future.
Civil estate needs to be a model for the UK's property managers and developers, local authority planners and householders, not just for lower carbon emissions and energy efficiency but also in the critical area of resilience – meaning buildings which are flexible and adaptable enough to deal with challenges from climate change, changing use and for the integration of new technologies without the need for major and expensive rebuilding.
In the first instance, demand for energy needs to be understood – when and how energy is needed – and nailed down to the minimum. The development of low-cost sensor technology, tracking temperature, humidity and the use of heat, light and water, is important for landlords of large and varied property stocks as a means of identifying exactly what the energy issues are.
In terms of carbon savings there are three broad options: considering how to reduce unnecessary air leakage; identifying easy ways to improve the performance of the building envelope through increased insulation etc; and controlling the levels of solar access during the summer, preferably through the use of external shades, to minimise the need for cooling.
Consideration should be given to the location of activities within public buildings, such as keeping spaces that are only sporadically used or require less heat, such as circulation spaces, kitchen areas and server rooms, on the northerly side of buildings (with no or less sunlight). Sensible zoning of buildings into areas that generally require less heating – like stairwells and corridors – is also useful.
Greater commitment to trial and adoption of renewable and low carbon technologies is needed. But this is about more than the simple adoption of mature technologies such as photovoltaics, ground source heat pumps or solar hot water collectors, there needs to be greater focus on how we can effectively use these kinds of technologies in combination and truly reduce our dependence on the grid.
The key is to match the ability of different technologies to supply demand within a building. There is no one size that fits all. In other words, decisions to invest in specific bits of technology must be made in relation to the occupation pattern of the building and the consequent energy demand profile.
There is a basic skills and knowledge issue in the UK. There are question marks over whether the quality of installation of new technologies can be guaranteed, and with products available at reasonable cost and sourced from UK suppliers. Higher education has a role in embedding the training requirements for these skills into existing programmes, as well as being a source of informed opinion on new technologies and their suitability. Local authorities should also be looking at how impartial support and advice can be provided to their communities on the Green Deal and retrofitting, as well as encouraging and facilitating more community-based initiatives and sharing of experiences and costs. Every new development and regeneration scheme should include consideration and understanding of the resilience issue and long-term adaptability.
Most importantly of all, a coherent and consistent regulatory and legislative landscape for sustainable building and retrofitting needs to be in place to secure the issue, to reassure everyone involved that schemes like the Green Deal are not a fad but the new reality of property development and home ownership. UK industry in particular needs to be given the necessary confidence that demand for refurbishment products and renewable and low carbon technologies is ongoing, that all the investment in research and development is worthwhile, and that recruiting and training a new legion of experts and installers makes sense.Mark Gaterell is professor of sustainable construction at Coventry University